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By Baroness Emmuska Orczy Orczy
“Nola, the daughter of Menecreta, my lord,” said one of the scribes.
“I do not see the name of Nola, daughter of Menecreta, amongst those whom the State doth not guarantee for skill, health or condition,” rejoined the praefect quietly, and his rough voice, scarcely raised above its ordinary pitch, seemed to ring a death—knell in poor Menecreta’s heart.
“Nola, the daughter of Menecreta,” he continued, once more referring to the parchment in his hand, “is here described as sixteen years of age, of sound health and robust constitution, despite the spareness of her body. The censor who compiled this list states that she has a fair knowledge of the use of unguents and of herbs, that she can use a needle and plait a lady’s hair. Thou didst know all this, Hun Rhavas, for the duplicate list is before thee even now.”
“My lord’s grace,” murmured Hun Rhavas, his voice quivering now, his limbs shaking with the fear in him, “I did not know–I––”
“Thou didst endeavour to defraud the State for purposes of thine own,” interposed the praefect calmly. “Here! thou!” he added, beckoning to one of his lictors, “take this man to the Regia and hand him over to the chief warder.”
“My lord’s grace––” cried Hun Rhavas.
“Silence! To—morrow thou’lt appear before me in the basilica. Bring thy witnesses then if thou hast any to speak in thy defence. To—morrow thou canst plead before me any circumstance which might mitigate thy fault and stay my lips from condemning thee to that severe chastisement which crimes against the State deserve. In the meanwhile hold thy peace. I’ll not hear another word.”
But it was not in the negro’s blood to submit to immediate punishment now and certain chastisement in the future without vigorous protestations and the generous use of his powerful lungs. The praefect’s sentences in the tribunal where he administered justice were not characterised by leniency; the galleys, the stone—quarries, aye! even the cross were all within the bounds of possibility, whilst the scourge was an absolute certainty.
Hun Rhavas set up a succession of howls which echoed from temple to temple, from one end of the Forum to the other.
The frown on the praefect’s forehead became even more marked than before. He had seen the young idlers–who, but a moment ago, were fawning round Dea Flavia’s litter–turning eagerly back towards the rostrum, where Hun Rhavas’ cries and moans had suggested the likelihood of one of those spectacles of wanton and purposeless cruelty in which their perverted senses found such constant delight.
But this spectacle Taurus Antinor was not like to give them. All he wanted was the quick restoration of peace and order. The fraudulent auctioneer was naught in his sight but a breaker of the law. As such he was deserving of such punishment as the law decreed and no more. But his howls just now were the means of rousing in the hearts of the crowd that most despicable of all passions to which the Roman–the master of civilisation–was a prey–the love of seeing some creature, man or beast, in pain, a passion which brought the Roman citizen down to the level of the brute: therefore Taurus Antinor wished above all to silence Hun Rhavas.
“One more sound from thy throat and I’ll have thee scourged now and branded ere thy trial,” he said.
The threat was sufficient. The negro, feeling that in submission lay his chief hope of mercy on the morrow, allowed himself to be led away quietly whilst the young patricians–cheated of an anticipated pleasure–protested audibly.
“And thou, Cheiron,” continued the praefect, addressing a fair—skinned slave up on the rostrum who had been assistant hitherto in the auction, “do thou take the place vacated by Hun Rhavas.”
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